Una donna vera (A Real Woman)
A genius immortalized her. A French king paid a fortune for her. An emperor coveted her. Poets lauded her. Singers crooned of her. Advertisers exploited her. No face has ever captivated so many for so long.Every year more than 9 million visitors trek to her portrait in the Louvre. Like most, I stared at the masterpiece but never thought much about its subject.
Then I went to Florence—not once, but again and again. As a tourist, I explored its treasures. As a student, I learned its language. While researching La Bella Lingua, the tale of my love affair with Italian, I interviewed its scholars. On visit after visit, I immersed myself ever more deeply in its culture. And almost by chance, I came upon the woman behind the iconic smile.
One evening during a dinner at her home, Ludovica Sebregondi, an art historian who befriended me, mentions that the mother of “La Gioconda,” as Italians refer to Leonardo’s lady, grew up in this very building on Via Ghibellina. The casual comment takes me by surprise. To me Mona Lisa had always seemed nothing more than the painting in the Louvre or the ubiquitous image on everything from tee shirts to teapots, not a girl with a mother and a life of her own.
“Mona Lisa was an actual person?” I ask.
“Sì,” Ludovica replies, explaining that Monna Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo was “una donna vera” (a real woman) who had lived in Florence five centuries ago. Monna, spelled with two n’s in contemporary Italian, means “Madame,” a title of respect.
Like other women of her time, Lisa would have carried her father’s name, Gherardini, throughout her life. Italians call the painting “La Gioconda” as a clever play on her husband’s surname (del Giocondo) and a descriptive for a happy woman (from the word’s literal meaning).
Yet the city’s most famous daughter is almost invisible in her hometown. No street or monument bears her name. No plaques commemorate the places where she lived.Curiosity leads me, via a typically Italian network of friends and friends of friends, to the world’s expert on la vera Lisa: Giuseppe Pallanti. Tirelessly pursuing her family’s parchment and paper trail, this archival sleuth has unearthed tax statements, real estate transfers, court proceedings, and records of baptisms, marriages, and deaths.
We meet on a rooftop terrace overlooking Lisa’s childhood neighborhood in the Oltrarno, the “other,” or southern, side of the Arno River. Pallanti, a soft-spoken, gray-haired economics instructor with a classic and kindly Tuscan face, cannot explain an obsession that has consumed him for decades. His wife has grown weary of her rival for his attention; his children groan at the sound of her name. But from the moment when he came upon her father’s signature on a land deed, he fell under Lisa’s thrall. Soon I would too.
Unfolding a tourist map of Florence, Pallanti marks an X to indicate the location of the house where Lisa was born, a converted wool shop on Via Sguazza. Once again I feel the electric buzz of an epiphany: Of course, una donna vera, a real woman, would have a real place of birth. I can’t wait to see it.
The very next day I make my way to a narrow lane off Via Maggio, once a main artery leading to the Porta Romana, the gate south to Siena. Via Sguazza, meaning “wallow,” lives up to its squalid name. More than five hundred years after residents complained of the stench from a clogged municipal drain, the street still stinks. The foul smell, I discover as I return in different seasons, intensifies as temperatures rise and water levels fall.
Graffiti smear the grimy houses that line the dank street. Trash huddles in corners. Wooden doors splinter and sag on rusty hinges. No one lingers in the gloom. No one seems to care about a girl named Lisa Gherardini born centuries ago amid the clattering mills of Florence’s cloth trade. Unexpectedly, I find that I do.
Although I make no claims as scholar, historian, archivist, or Leonardista, the journalist in me immediately senses that the flesh-and-blood woman born on this fetid block has a story of her own, stretching deep into the past and woven into the rich fabric of Florence’s history.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.